31 July 2019

AFC Wimbledon v Crystal Palace: A pre-season friendly to remember

Well that was fun. Pre-season friendlies are often meaningless games of nothingness, full of players falling down with cramp, misplaced passes, and lack of atmosphere. Last night's game between AFC Wimbledon and Crystal Palace may have lacked any real meaning for the forthcoming season, but what it lacked in that department was compensating by one of the best atmospheres I've ever experienced at a friendly game. It was no doubt helped by the history between the two clubs, and the fact that all players were largely fit and raring to go.
Palace fielded a few first teamers, namely Connor Wickham up front and Mamadou Sakho at the back, with the rest being young reserves. Likewise Wimbledon, no doubt wary of Saturday's first league game at home against Rotherham, fielded players who will likely not be in Saturday's starting eleven if in the squad at all.

The first half was a fairly predictable affair. Palace had lots of possession, creating a few good chances. Connor Wickham was at the heart of most of these, as his twists and turns caused concern to the Wimbledon defence. 

Wimbledon weren't about to be outclassed without a fight though. They had chances of their own and could have gone into the lead. Unfortunately there was no Wickham up front, and the chances fell to Dylan Connolly and Kwesi Appiah both of whom fluffed their lines fairly spectacularly. 

Connolly has been interesting to watch in pre-season, but not necessarily in a good way. Last season he seemed sellotaped to the right touch line. He rarely moved more than a few metres from it. During these games he seems to be playing slightly more centrally, and appears with the ball in or around the penalty area more. Trouble is, this isn't playing to his strength. The sight of him sprinting after balls down the channel is a joy to behold, but he doesn't seem to know what to do when he comes inside.

Appiah by comparison did his usual act. He's the sort of player who's best when he has no time to think of what he has to do. Give him a nanosecond to think, and he either chooses the wrong option or gets his body position all wrong. This was perfectly illustrated by a snap shot from just outside the area that arrowed just wide of the upright, and a mistimed free header that looped harmlessly over the bar when it really should have tested the keeper.

I stood next to a Leeds United fan during the first half. He was down in London on business and had been looking for a pre-season friendly to get his football fix. As one delightful cross into the box by Pinnock went across the six yard box and out for a goal kick, I commented, "If we deliver balls like that into the box this season I'll be happy." His response was, "But you need someone there to get on the end of them." He was right of course, and this summed up our problem.

Palace took a lead into half time. Wickham was at the heart of the goal unselfishly setting up Brandon Pierrick, after the Wimbledon keeper Nik Tzanev had twice denied goal bound efforts. Perhaps the goal was a little harsh on the hosts, especially as they had a defender off the pitch receiving treatment at the time.

The goal sparked the Palace fans into action, with some of them waking up from a fairly even game to support their team. The home fans reciprocated, but rarely met the same volume levels. All of that was to change after the break.

The second half started much like the first. Lots of Palace possession, but little end result thanks for a hardworking Dons defence. That was about to change in spectacular fashion. A sustained period of Wimbledon pressure resulted in a couple of good chances, but eventually the pressure told. A corner came in from the left, and young Finley Macnab arrived at the right time and place to power a free header over the line. It was just what the Wimbledon faithful deserved.

It was unjust therefore when Brandon Pierrick scored a second a few minutes later. Out of nothing he managed to turn and get his shot off from outside the area that was just out of reach of Tzanev's dive. It was a harsh goal, but again demonstrated what better opposition is capable of.

What happened next was typical of the Wimbledon spirit. Not content with losing the game, the tempo was once again stepped up. Defending the home end, Palace couldn't hold onto the ball for long, and the Dons fans capitalised on this. The impressive Jack Rudoni almost equalised after a snap shot caught the Palace keeper off guard. Unfortunately his shot went across goal and off the post to safety. But the pressure finally told in injury time. A goal mouth scrabble resulted in Tommy Wood grabbing the equaliser with virtually the last kick of the game. 

In summary a 2-2 draw was a fair result. It was clear what we have to do to reach the level of the Premier League, but it was also clear what hard work and tactics can achieve to undermine the technical ability of more adroit players. Wimbledon may feel it was a point gained, and Palace as two lost. I think it was a friendly game played in a cracking atmosphere. Friendlies may be more about tactics and fitness than results, but the same goes for fans. This was a game where both sets of fans limbered up for the season with good banter and mutual respect.

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